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In memoirs, a journey of discovery

Early narratives shape Obama, McCain

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Sasha Issenberg
Globe Staff / March 16, 2008

As the nearly indistinguishable titles of their memoirs suggest, it was paternal influence that drove both of this year's presidential front-runners to contemplate their own identities long before they sought national office.

In "Dreams From My Father," Barack Obama searches for the Kenyan economist who abandoned his mother and played only a fleeting role in his youth - a quest provoked by "the fear and discomfort that his presence had caused me, forcing me for the first time to consider the mystery of my own life."

At the conclusion of "Faith of My Fathers," John McCain emerges from a Vietnamese prison camp, strengthened from having lived up to an instruction his grandfather gave his father at the end of World War II: to serve country and principle above all else.

"I had remembered a dying man's legacy to his son," McCain wrote, "and when I needed it most, I had found my freedom abiding in it."

Both candidates have written idiosyncratic memoirs on the political bookshelf: The books conclude with the authors still in their 30s, well before either sought public office. In each, growth is framed in literary arcs, not political ones: Evolution is always personal, not ideological.

The vogue among political strategists is to talk of campaigns as "narrative," and through these first books Obama and McCain established themselves early as narrators of their own lives. As candidates, both boast of the self-awareness that comes with having investigated their own identities, treating their presidential campaigns as the latest legs on parallel journeys of self-discovery.

"Neither of these two books is what I'd think of as standard campaign biography or autobiography," said John Eakin, a professor emeritus of English at Indiana University. "Both of the stories that they told contribute to the fathoming of character."

The popularity of those stories, each a bestseller, helped launch campaigns: When his was released in the fall of 1999, McCain drew larger crowds to book signings than rallies, and last year Obama hosted book clubs to familiarize New Hampshire voters with his 1995 memoir. Both charismatic candidacies, grounded in the idea that unusual life experience can help forge transcendent character, are creatures of an era where memoir has come to dominate not only the publishing industry but American life.

"Memoir has gone from this summing-up narrative to a much more open-ended form in which all sorts of stories could be engaged," said Eakin. "These are both what I would describe as relational autobiographies: These are individuals who are positing their sense of identity in terms of their important relationships with family members."

The third remaining candidate, Hillary Clinton, has followed a more conventional publishing arc: "It Takes A Village," written while first lady, was a soft-focus policy manifesto. And her memoir, "Living History," written in 2003 as a senator thought to be considering an eventual presidential campaign, was widely dismissed as too mannered: New York Times critic Michiko Kakutani said the memoir bore "the overprocessed taste of a stump speech, the calculated polish of a string of anecdotes to be delivered on a television chat show."

Unlike Clinton, McCain and Obama were not established national celebrities when they began writing their memoirs, both initially conceived and marketed to have a shelf life that would outlast election cycles, according to their publishers.

"We weren't publishing the book to introduce him to America. We were publishing the book because we had a great story to tell," said Jonathan Karp, McCain's editor, then at Random House.

McCain had rejected entreaties to write about his prison years, but the prospect became more attractive when agent Flip Brophy proposed placing that experience in a multigenerational family narrative. "The idea of writing about his father and grandfather appealed to him," said Mark Salter, an aide who has collaborated on all of McCain's books. "I think he was fascinated by his grandfather."

While working on a book proposal, McCain drew Salter's attention to a photograph of his father and grandfather, both Navy admirals, in Tokyo Harbor at war's end - their last encounter before the elder McCain's death. As Salter interviewed others in the family, he realized that it was a moment where a family's notion of honor was passed from one generation to the next.

"I started with this picture because it meant a lot to McCain," said Salter. "That's what suggested the duty and self-sacrifice that became the narrative of the book."

It quickly became the narrative of McCain's political career, as well. In 1999, McCain made service to "a cause greater than self-interest" the theme of his presidential campaign, with an emphasis on encouraging young people to pursue public service. This year, even as his policy focus shifted, McCain continued to present self-sacrifice as a core political value. "I would rather lose a career than lose a war," he said in January, justifying his support for the "surge" strategy in Iraq.

Salter, listed on book jackets as McCain's coauthor, wrote the manuscript based on interviews with McCain, his relatives, and fellow soldiers, as well as research into family and military documents. McCain, who counts fictional protagonists including Ernest Hemingway's Robert Jordan among his heroes, was concerned with maintaining the book's literary appeal, according to Salter. "He doesn't look at a book as a politician. He looks at it as a reader," Salter said. "He likes things not being straightforward, and you could put in the book that sort of ambivalence."

Yet McCain, who reviewed Salter's manuscript on his weekly air commute between Phoenix and Washington, made changes to the text largely for reasons of accuracy rather than style or voice.

"John McCain and Mark Salter were smart enough to know that in order for people to believe the story, it had to ring true," said Karp. "It had irony and self-deprecation, and descriptions that were not always flattering to McCain."

In their memoirs, both McCain and Obama portrayed themselves as aimless youths who eventually uncover a sense of purpose that directs them - McCain in public service, Obama through a connection to his heritage.

"McCain's is a struggle for self-mastery rather than a story of self-discovery," said Eakin, noting that for McCain the "models and expectations" of how to behave were always evident while Obama had to locate his.

Barely a page passes in McCain's retelling of his early years without acknowledgment of venial sin committed in rebellion against the high expectations his family created for him: "excessive drinking," "puerile mischief," "temper and what little self-restraint I possessed," "insolence," being "not so much indifferent as selective" about his studies. He admits having "gloried in the envy of my friends" during a fling with a Brazilian fashion model in Rio de Janeiro and having "created a small international incident" when he took down Spanish power lines because of "daredevil clowning" on a training mission.

Obama's profile of his own disaffection - as an "alienated" mixed-race child seeking to place himself amid conflicting identity categories - is similarly candid. He admits turning to alcohol, marijuana, and "maybe a little blow when you could afford it" - all helped to "push questions of who I was out of my mind, something that could flatten out the landscape of my heart, blur the edges of my memory."

At both Muslim and Catholic schools in Indonesia, Obama writes that he dismissed his religious studies: "nothing happened" when he prayed.

"I don't think the book is calculated in any way. That's why it's striking a chord with people," said Henry Ferris, Obama's editor while at Times Books, which published "Dreams From My Father" in 1995, a year before its author first sought election as a state senator in Illinois. "I was looking at a manuscript by someone who was a lawyer and community organizer in Chicago. I didn't see it in any way as a political memoir."

Obama's narrative, written without a collaborator, is structured as a journey seeking to learn more about his absentee father. Obama ends up in Kenya, where he meets much of his paternal family for the first time and finds a stack of letters his father wrote to American universities, including one where he eventually met Obama's mother.

"I saw that my life in America - the black life, the white life, the sense of abandonment I'd felt as a boy, the frustration and hope I'd witnessed in Chicago - all of it was connected with this small plot of earth an ocean away, connected by more than the accident of a name or the color of my skin. The pain I felt was my father's pain," he wrote.

Obama has cast his campaign as a challenge for the country to pursue a similar quest. There is "no destiny we could not fulfill" as a country until Americans "get beyond the divisions that have become so commonplace in our politics" - starting with race - and "and challenge ourselves to be better," Obama said after winning the Wisconsin primary last month.

Since their first memoirs, both candidates have written more conventional political books. Obama's second book, "The Audacity of Hope," is organized largely around topical issues. McCain has written a number of titles that all deal with character values, including a how-to volume and a children's book - each produced at Karp's urging by Salter's pen.

"What this means is that the telling of the story is not a strong revelation of character," said Eakin. With "Dreams From My Father," "Obama gave me the impression that the actual writing of the story was part of the process of self-discovery."

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